How to Survive and Thrive as a Leader in this Crisis – Mark Nevins

“For me, one of the biggest challenges of this crisis has been to help my leaders pull themselves out of the urgency of the moment and be planful. That said, I think at Encore we are now at least one week ahead in terms of operational planning and are beginning to start forecasting for next year—albeit I see my team oscillating in and out of panic mode.”   —Jeremy Kaplan, Encore Community Services

These are unprecedented times for businesspeople. Many of my clients, tough and seasoned leaders, have told me:  “There’s just no playbook. This is not a ‘normal’ crisis—I can handle one of those—this thing looks completely different from one day to the next. I’m honestly not sure what to do.”  

The quotation up above from Jeremy Kaplan should be an inspiration for all of us.  Encore’s mission includes delivering food and support to the elderly and home-bound throughout the Westside of Manhattan. The organization also owns and operates two buildings near Times Square which house elderly poor and formerly homeless New Yorkers. New York City is currently the hottest spot in the world for the coronavirus pandemic, and Encore’s services don’t exactly lend themselves to a “work from home” model.

Talking with open and thoughtful clients like Jeremy the last few weeks has helped me think in new ways about what leadership really means. Over a “virtual cocktail” (a practice I encourage you to adopt with key stakeholders) earlier this week, I caught up with my old and dear friend Hector Batista. For the last year Hector has served as the Chief Operating Officer of the City University of New York (CUNY).  

If you’ve held a role in the C-suite of a public company, you may think a senior-level university job is a walk in the park. Think again. CUNY, “The Greatest Urban University in the World,” comprises 26 separate campuses spread across the five boroughs of New York City. The system serves 500,000 students and employs 48,000 faculty and staff. While CUNY was established in 1961, its oldest constituent colleges date back to before the Civil War. Each school runs as an independent entity but is accountable to the Chancellor; the Chancellor in turn reports to a diverse Board of Trustees, half appointed by the Mayor of New York and half by the Governor of New York.  (If you follow New York politics, you have a sense of what that means.)

I’ve been talking with Hector about this job since he was considering taking it last summer, and we worked through his 100- and 200-day plans as he on-boarded. As I grew to understand the role and mandate I was amazed by the scale and complexity of his job, and the incredible number and diversity of stakeholders he needs to manage and keep happy. In the last month, Hector’s job has become even more difficult.

Running a massive multi-campus university day-to-day is one challenge; shifting to distance learning for a half-million students; deploying technology to support virtual classrooms; bringing thousands of international students back to NYC safely after Spring Break; and converting three campus dormitory systems to hospitals ready to help with NYC’s COVID-19 crisis? That’s a whole other dimension.

No matter what your leadership role, these will probably be the toughest times you will face in your entire career. 

As Hector and I were catching up, I asked him, “Look, bottom line, how are you handling all of this?” His response: “I’ve had to be pretty creative in problem-solving over the course of my career, from Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Department of Housing to Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, but nothing could have prepared me for this.”

Hector and I spent another hour talking through his current challenges, both of us taking notes, and in the end he had a few new ideas for the next few weeks, and I had better clarity on some “portable knowledge” I could share with my other clients—and with you.

No matter what your leadership role, these will probably be the toughest times you will face in your entire career. There are no easy solutions or silver bullets, but here are five things you can do right now and five things you need to do right now.  In the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, one of my patron saints, these are things in your control. They’re not about your business or your operations, they are about you yourself.

1– Protect the Asset 

I’m stealing this phrase from Greg McKeown’s excellent book Essentialism. You are the asset. There’s only one of you, and your people and customers need you.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anyone else.  Get enough sleep. Eat healthy and get your exercise, even if it’s just a long walk with a two-meter buffer. (Assuming you live someplace where you can still do that.) Stay focused, and make some time for the things that re-energize you.  While I’ve been available to clients pretty much 24/7 (and the time zones of some my clients have made that a literal 24/7) since this crisis kicked into high gear, I’ve kept a promise to my home-bound 10-year old twins that we’d watch a movie every night. We’re on Night 28 (how long will this streak last?) and this ritual has really kept me going.

2– Create Boundaries 

You’re committed, and you want and need to be there, but you can’t be everything to everybody at every minute.  You need time to think, to prioritize, to re-prioritize, to plan, to re-plan, and to recuperate—every day. Things are changing at an unimaginable pace, and if you don’t elevate your gaze on a regular basis you may find yourself wasting energy on yesterday’s problems at the expense of today’s.  Furthermore, if you’re only playing defense you’re not going to win. If your life feels like a game of Tetris right now, you’re in trouble. Nobody actually wins Tetris: they just lose more slowly. Make sure you’re creating the physical and mental space to focus clearly, be fully present, and make good decisions. You won’t be able to keep all of the balls in the air, but that’s not the goal: the key is to wisely choose which balls to drop so that you can devote your limited energy to keeping the vital few aloft.
If your life feels like a game of Tetris right now, you’re in trouble. Nobody actually wins Tetris: they just lose more slowly. 

3– Delegate  

My bold statement to every executive I work with: "You must delegate everything somebody else can do.” Why? Because that’s how you get leverage. Building on our juggling metaphor above: the more balls you can pass to others, the more balls you can keep from dropping during this critical time. In addition, it is only through delegation that you give your people a chance to grow, to challenge themselves, and to create opportunities for you to coach them. (Nobody learns to shoot a jump-shot just standing there watching someone else drain 20-footers—if we’re going to learn, we need the ball.) But what’s the most important reason to delegate? If you don’t give up the things other people can do, you won’t be able to spend your precious time on the critical things only you can do. And we need you focused on those things right now.

4– Communicate

In times of crisis, your ability to communicate is the glue that holds everything together. As a leader, you must choose your messages carefully — tactical directions for the short term, renewed vision for the long term, reassurances for worried staff, critical information that people need to do their job, etc. And you will find that you need to repeat yourself more than usual as your team’s own stress level make them a bit more distracted and “needy” than usual. In parallel, it is vital that you take the time to listen to your stakeholders — from your staff to your boss to your peers to your customers. Things are changing a mile a minute, and if you stop listening, you will soon find yourself making tomorrow’s decisions with yesterday’s data. In addition, listening will preserve and strengthen your relationships with the people upon whom you need to rely now more than ever. 

5– Embrace Your Mistakes  

Nobody is perfect, and if you expect perfection you’ll be disappointed. My college roommate was a cornerback on his high school football team, and thirty five years ago he confided in me that that experience taught him one of his greatest life lessons: “Every once in a while you’re going to get burned on a play. But if you don’t learn from it quickly and then shake it off just as quickly, you’re going to get burned on the next play as well.” This point speaks to the importance of Resilience (the subject of my last column), but it is even more powerful than that. Without mistakes, there can be no innovation. Without failure, there can be no success. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, so embrace the inevitable moments when things don’t work out the way you planned, and ask yourself: “what can I learn from this?”    

I left my call with Hector feeling much better about how to cope with the challenges I am facing as a businessperson. I hope he did too. To offer one last sports cliché, “This is going to be a marathon not a sprint.” That is why having a core set of principles to rely on, such as the five above, can be helpful. Even though the future is unknowable, you can move forward with the confidence that if you keep doing what really matters, you will not only survive this crisis – you (and your team) will emerge from it even stronger.

Copyright © 2020 Nevins Consulting, Inc., All rights reserved.


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